Bear Mountain, Direct North Buttress

ski sickness logo

21-22 August 2005

Bear North Face by Scurlock The mighty north face of Bear Mountain. We climbed off the glacier onto the rock at the lower red dot, and high-tailed home from our high point at the upper red dot. Photo by John Scurlock

Only a month after skiing Central Mowich Face, I've had more fun on alpine rock climbs than I ever would have imagined. When I was stowing the skis, if you'd asked me if I would climb Bear this year, my response definitely would have been dubious. But after a month of rowdy fun and a whole new realm of harvesting adrenaline in warm sunshine, it became the obvious next step. A big, isolated, somewhat difficult climb with a significant off-trail approach made its appeal hard to resist.

The approach featured ample missteps. I was convinced that the gate into the park at the north end of Chilliwack Lake was the gate through which we needed to pass. We drove backtracked many miles to the last store to check. I got another cup of coffee, my third on top of two shots in the dark since Ross arrived at my house. He voiced some concern about my caffeine consumption. I made an objection about his hypocricy, to which he replied, "But it's a lifestyle for me." Yeah, I do this all the time. Actually, I don't, but I handled it just fine. We returned to a freshly-opened gate, to discover we needed to be on the other side of the lake. Ross was right.

As far as further foolishness, Ross and I missed the trail near the end of the road after ample shenanigans beginning our hike up Depot Creek instead of the Chilliwack River. We were rewarded with a walk through a swamp and lots of bushwhacking. It took us about three miles to actually gain the proper trail; by this time we weren't much more than a mile from Bear Creek where we would leave the trail.

The off-trail hike up Bear Mountain to camp was actually very pleasant. There is a decent climber's path, but it doesn't matter if you miss it because the terrain is never too steep and it's open forest without too much nasty brush. After a few thousand vertical feet the trees thinned and the blueberry bushes controlled the ground. The blueberry bushes were slightly less pleasant for hiking, but they easily compensated for the added difficulty with handful after handful of delicious berries.

We reached the notch where we intended to bivy a couple hours before sunset. The approach was quite a piece of work; it definitely rivals the Pickets. We chose to bivy a little below the notch for the advantage of some wind-breaking trees and flat, grassy spots to sleep. We both stuffed ourselves, I finished my tequila, and then we settled into our respective shelters for a fitful night's rest. I slept quite warm with no sleeping bag. One good trick that helps with the sparse bivy is keeping the feet inside the backpack.

We left camp in the morning just before the headlamps entered obsolescence. Down around the first big buttress of the north face, across more choss, and we arrived at some nasty glacial ice. The skies were cloudy and fog was rising from the valley floor. The weather added a nice, ominous uncertainty to the morning but there wasn't a word about not climbing. It always feels that much more satisfying in the end when the deal seems dubious beforehand. We stopped to put crampons on our tennis shoes.

The French technique, pied à plat works amazingly well in tennis shoes. Some spicy flat-footed ice climbing on the constantly shuffling pocket glacier got the juices flowing. We scrambled off the perilous ice blocks onto slabs sans protection. By this time I was ready to lighten my load for the climb. Ross tried to kill me with a massive trundle, but what he called my cat-like reflexes allowed me to evade his assault. I played dodgeball with the falling rocks and my Icesac took a bit of abuse. I was just glad it didn't get trundled off the slabs onto or below the glacier. I finished my business in a seedy ice cave that didn't look like it would last.

Soon I caught Ross as he made a couple 5.7 moves in his tennis shoes on mediocre rock. I've had enough supplementary danger for the morning after playing dodgeball, so I asked him to drop the rope for the last move. I climbed to him, we changed into our shoes and made a belay, then I led a long pitch up awful rock until I found a decent belay just above the bottom of the dihedral pitch to the roof. Ross stayed left through the off-width crack until I suggested he move right below the roof. He pulled the roof without too much trouble after finding a jug on the right. I moved right much earlier in the pitch and found clean rock with beautiful holds. I was able to stem through the roof until I noticed the jug was at my chest level; no problems here.

traverse - no 5.9? Ross leads the traverse pitch. Mt Redoubt dominates the background.

Ross finished up a corner before I led the chimney and a stemming pitch on heinous rock with shitty pro. Ross spearheaded the traverse pitch and we got a cool picture much like the one of Bobby Knight in Kearney's book. We were solidly climbing two pitches to each individual pitch on Kearney's topo. Next came a significant chunk of simulclimbing to the upper buttress.

The upper buttress delivered the goods. The rock finally improved. Ross led the first bit to a ledge. I had to traverse left before the fist crack. I neglected protection until several moves up the crack, hoping to avoid wicked rope drag. The drag from the corner was terrible. I climbed higher, hoping it would subside. No such luck. I struggled to pull the rope to clip a cam I placed just as the crack got really strenuous. This just wasn't going to work. Ross couldn't hear me either. So I just lowered myself off my highest cam. When I reached the bottom Ross yelled, "That's me!" He was a bit incredulous when he rounded the corner and saw me belaying him from the bottom of the crack. I told him, "The rope drag was ridiculous. I'm just gonna go from here."

Ross argumentatively replied, "You would have been fine."

Maybe so but I was happy to climb what I thought was the toughest full pitch of the day without much drag. The beautiful crack went from hands to fist, quite vertical and strenuous for more than half the 60-meter rope before reaching a ledge. I continued from the ledge. I was so pumped I almost got myself in trouble on a tricky little crack above the ledge.

Next Ross climbed a really cool pitch on a steep face up to the crest of the buttress, on ample holds cut into really solid rock. This was the pitch shown with Jim Nelson leading in his Selected Climbs in the Cascades Vol. I. It's a really good one, too. After the face bit Ross took the bypass on climber's right around the chimney.

It was my turn to lead what Kearney describes as a pitch that continues "up a wandering face and crack on the crest". This pitch was quite interesting. I climbed to an old, 1/4" bolt, then went left and up a flake. Above the flake was some steep, thin face climbing with no hands. I placed a solid nut and rehearsed my steps onto the thin feet several times. Finally I committed and made the moves. Several more similar moves were required. I found it to be a fun, heady pitch. I had some rope left, but when I got to what looked like a ringer for Kearney's 'double cracks' I made a belay.

Ross led the double cracks without a moment's pause. He cruised his pitch and I was left with one easy rope-legth lead that put us atop the buttress. We looked at the summit, but given the early hour we had serious hopes to hit the trail and get close to the truck before dark. The weather also seemed to be threatening rain. At least Ross' altimeter watch had said as much. Regardless, beer sounded really great. We were really pleased to have climbed the DNB in 8.5 hours.

We feasted at camp, then made quick tracks for the valley. Being on the actual trail really helped; we were well past the Canadian border before dark. With the onset of darkness, the last mile took us a long time. Nevertheless we were drinking beers at the bar in Sardis around 11pm. Slesse sure looked interesting from the close vantage of Bear, I thought over my beer...